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GAME PREVIEW: #12 Auburn @ #13 Texas A&M

Game 9: There’s no reason to be nice to an Aggie.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

These weeks are always weird to me. When you’re in the midst of SEC play, you almost feel like every single week you should have some deep-rooted memories of each team on the schedule. Even now that we don’t play Florida or Tennessee every year, I can remember being young and pointing to those games on the schedule as huge games. Of course, you’ll always pay attention to Alabama and Georgia and LSU, but even Ole Miss and Mississippi State carried memories that your parents held dear.

Arkansas is still relatively new. There’s only one generation that remembers playing the Hogs every year, and there will be even fewer folks that cherish memories of facing off against Texas A&M. Still, Auburn and the Aggies are kind of in the same boat. Son of Crow outlined it fairly well in his article yesterday about disliking A&M, but when you’re not the big state school, you can’t help but share a common upbringing. Maybe it should make the intensity of the rivalry better, or help us quickly ease into a rhythm with hating each other.

Instead, it’s still a little weird. There have been a couple of veritable classics, with the back and forth wins in 2013 and 2014 setting the tone for what could be a fantastic divisional rivalry. Then, the 2015-2017 games were fairly benign before the comeback in 2018 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Even with some relatively close games, we’re nearing a decade of yearly affairs with A&M, and there’s really only one, maybe two, true classics.

All that’s to say, to what extent does A&M get up for this game? Texas A&M is still very much in the race for the SEC West, they just need a little help from essentially us by beating Alabama. Beating Auburn gives you the tiebreaker over your two biggest adversaries for the West. This is a huge game, and there’s so much reason for both sides to come into this one absolutely roaring.

For Auburn, Bryan Harsin has had this team ready for every game (sans GSU), and especially when it comes to road games. Even though the Tigers lost to Penn State, the atmosphere wasn’t the issue in defeat. Wins at LSU and Arkansas showed improvement each time out, and it seems like the coaches have an idea of how to motivate the team specifically for each opponent.

Here’s the deal. if Auburn wins this game, they’ll have one SEC loss with three games left to go. Two of those games come against Mississippi State and South Carolina, both opponents over which Auburn will be favored. If Auburn gets through this game with a win, then it’s a winner take all Iron Bowl with almost sure certainty at the end of November. Texas A&M has a similar situation, but they have no room for error with two losses on the docket already. They’ve got to be Auburn fans the rest of the way, and hope that the Tigers can knock Bama into a spot where that head to head tiebreaker comes into effect. What it comes down to is that this is almost a de factor semifinal game for the SEC West for Auburn. Win this one, and you’re more than likely playing Alabama for the division title at home. It’s so big, and it’s coming in a place that A&M has never beaten the Tigers.

WHEN AUBURN HAS THE BALL: Bo Nix, Bo Nix, Bo Nix. This game has the making of one for the Auburn signal-caller written all over it. A&M is going to try to do what they do best, which is stuff the run, and that means that the Tigers will have to find ways to move the ball without slamming Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter up the middle. Nix will be instrumental with the passing that he’s improved on over the past few weeks (completion percentage over the last four games — 50%, 55%, 61%, 71%), and finding ways to grab key yardage with his legs. Much of his completion percentage ascent has come by way of the receivers doing what they were brought on to do, and catch the ball. A&M’s defense has been strong the last two weeks (not a surprise), but they did give up over 430 yards in their first three SEC games. Is their defensive strength a function of opponent yet? We’ll see.

WHEN TEXAS A&M HAS THE BALL: It’s going to be about not having to make Zach Calzada win the game. While most of the nation saw him against Alabama, winning the game with his magnum opus (285 yards, 3 TDs, 67%), he’s not been that type of quarterback the rest of the year. In only two games has he cracked the 60% completion barrier (Alabama and Mississippi State), and he’s thrown an interception in every game except for the Colorado win (a 10-7 victory where he completed 47% of his passes). Now, he will have the benefit of a running game that’s been dynamite with Isaiah Spiller and Devin Achane out of the backfield. Both guys average more than 6.2 yards per carry, and they both have nearly 20 catches out of the backfield. While the A&M receivers don’t have much cache at this point, aside from Ainias Smith, they’ll rely on Jalen Wydermyer at tight end to provide the biggest matchup nightmare for the Auburn defense. Last year he was a wild man, nearly singlehandedly demolishing the Tigers in the A&M win, and you can bet that there’s been much discussion on how to defend him and what to do to prevent him from taking over.

SERIES HISTORY: Texas A&M leads the all-time series 5-6, but Auburn has beaten the Aggies three out of the last four years, and has never lost in College Station.

LAST MEETING: 2020 was a weird year, with Auburn welcoming a top five Texas A&M team to Jordan-Hare Stadium and led into the fourth quarter before falling 31-20 in the next to last game of the year.

LAST WEEK: Auburn took care of business against Ole Miss, winning 31-20 at home to vault up to #12 in the nation, while Texas A&M was taking their rest on an off week. Before the bye, the Aggies beat South Carolina 44-14 and is currently on a three-game SEC winning streak.

KEYS FOR AUBURN:

  1. It’s all about the run game. Can Auburn do it and can they defend it? While A&M’s defensive line is big and burly, Auburn’s has a little more nimbleness to it. Both defensive lines may actually be more highly-regarded than the offensive lines they’re facing off against, and it’ll really be a battle to figure out where the rushing yardage comes from. Does Auburn get Tank Bigsby going again like last week, or does he befall the kind of output we saw when teams were loading up to stop him? Does Isaiah Spiller get close to his 6.2 yards per carry, and does Devin Achane have success evading Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe? Will Auburn have to rely on a true Bo Nix game in both the running and passing categories? If the Tigers can control the line of scrimmage, they’ll have a much easier time winning this game.
  2. Bo’s progression. Since the benching against Georgia State, Bo Nix has been playing his best football in an Auburn uniform. The lone loss to Georgia can’t be laid at his feet, and road wins in Baton Rouge and Fayetteville, as well as a very efficient victory over top ten Ole Miss, have come with relative ease. Bo Nix is better, more focused (don’t make me say the whole thing), and getting more comfortable with the offense each week. If he’s miles ahead of Zach Calzada in this game, and making the very small amount of mistakes he’s made over the past few games, Auburn will be in good hands.
  3. Where is Jimbo Fisher’s emphasis? Was the Alabama game really the entire arsenal that Jimbo had at his disposal? Did his players just take that nighttime atmosphere and ramp up their performance to a steroid-induced level? Were they on actual steroids for that one game? These are all valid questions, but by looking at what A&M (and specifically Calzada) have done aside from the win over top-ranked Bama, it’s not as impressive. They got beat by Arkansas and Mississippi State just before that, and while they’ve had easy wins over Missouri and South Carolina, those might be two of the worst three teams in the SEC. Is this a Super Bowl type of game for Texas A&M? Will they treat it like the huge matchup it is? How do they feel after a week away? It’s hard to tell, but we’ll know fairly early if they feel like this game is essentially a semifinal for the SEC West.